Communication’s Challenge to Democracy

Videoconference on "Communiction's challenge to democracy" by Lewis Friedland, the Vilas Distinguished Professor of Journalism & Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, speaking to an audience in Kansas City organized by the Friends of Community Media with Friedland in Wisconsin and the audience in Kansas City, recorded 2017-10-21.
This is a rush transcript and may not be in its final form. Some non-grammatical forms have been edited to conform more with the apparent intent than the exact verbiage, and links and notes have been added. Anyone finding errors or confusing statements is invited to correct them here or raise them in the accompanying "Discuss" page or add updates in notes.
This is a transcript of a videoconference / webinar on October 21, 2017, with Lewis Friedland, the Vilas Distinguished Professor of Journalism & Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, speaking to an audience in Kansas City organized by the Friends of Community Media. (The numbers in silver in square brackets give the time stamp in [hh:mm:ss] in the accompanying video where that text can be found.)

[00:00:00] [Friedland] It's nice to be with you today. I appreciate the opportunity to talk to you about this set of problems. I've divided this into two big parts. I'm not going to talk for a long time. I'd rather have a conversation. But briefly you see that title of what Mark Lloyd and my coeditor believed of our book, Communication Crisis in America.[1] I'm going to keep this fairly simple and straightforward, and we can get into the details later. Our book was based upon a report that we did for the FCC in 2012,[2] which was a review of the entirety of literature on America's community information needs that we were contracted through the University of Southern California to do. With a team of about 20 of America's leading scholars in this area we combed the literature in all the major social science disciplines (sociology, political science, economics, communication, public health, emergency and risk communication) for what we knew about America's local community information needs. We found that there were gaping holes in what was needed. We recommended that the FCC do a study to learn more. The FCC agreed to do that study and started to implement it.

[00:01:57] But under pressure from the National Association of Broadcasters, the current chair of the FCC, Ajit Pai, who worked for Verizon Communications before he was on the FCC, and a number of others including Rush Limbaugh, who I know is a Kansas City mogul.

[00:02:25] But the report was spiked. The studies were never carried out, at least not at that scale. So we still don't know exactly what America's community information needs are. But we do know that we don't know much. So we enumerated a list of needs that we thought that every American had in one form or another. And most of these are fairly straightforward and generally commonsensical. I think probably a majority of people regardless of their political affiliation or ideology would agree with these. And then we set out to find out whether they were being met.

[00:03:17] Among these was the right to local community news and information. So people have a right to news about their local community. We assumed that there's an abundance of news about local communities. But the more closely you look at local community information or media ecology, as we're now calling them, that's not really the case. America's local communities for the most part are not getting even their basic needs in terms of sufficient coverage of local government, local education, the broad range of issues that most people would agree that any community in our society needs. Especially minority communities are not getting information about their own communities and the impact of policies on it.

[00:04:11] So that's one major area that we found was lacking. There were quite a few others. But specifically we found that America's political communication needs were not being met at the local level.

[00:04:25] The front page of the newspaper will cover the mayor's race. It won't cover very well in advance policy issues and policy debates. It won't tell you who's running for your local Common Council or your county board -- or if it does, it's usually buried on page eight or 10. And it's usually too late for most people to take action on.

[00:04:52] Election mobilization is very, very poor. So again on a bipartisan basis the kind of local political information that's available is just very poor.

[00:05:10] America's education system is a mixed system of schools of local and privatized or so-called charter schools. That presumes that there is a marketplace of information, sufficient information for local citizens to learn about their education alternatives.

[00:05:44] So it's fine to say everybody can choose the school that's best for their child. But I'm not sure that's correct. If that is what you believe, then you at minimum have to have an information marketplace so people can find out what are the different schools, what are the options, what kind of programs do they offer? What are their results?

[00:06:08] How well do they deal with lower income and minority kids? Do their kids go on to high school? Do they go on to college, and so on? That information doesn't exist almost anywhere in the United States.

[00:06:21] Health information. We all know you can go on the web right now and find out how much coffee per day is good for you and not good for you. You can find out about any disease in the universe in great detail.

[00:06:39] But what you really can't find out on the web in most American communities is if I need well-baby care for my child and I can't afford to pay for it, where can I go? Or how much asthma exists in our local community?

[00:06:58] Yes, of course, those stats sometimes are buried in very complex databases held by this federal governmental agency or sometimes private or nonprofit organizations. But it's not organized in a way that average citizens can easily quickly find it. And even if they can find the statistical information, they still can't find the local actionable information. For example, what emergency rooms take people on Medicaid or things like that? So basic health information is not being met.

[00:07:30] Basic civic information is rarely being met. There are very few cities in which the civic life of that city is organized and accessible for any citizen to go and find out everything from local recreation opportunities or clubs or choral groups all the way to quasi-political or voluntary associations and organizations. So that information for the most part isn't available in local communities in any organized or regular way.

[00:08:02] Most importantly, you might say most critically, we've seen during these last two to three months, that emergency information is not well organized on the web. There are some stopgaps where people are finding creative ways to use Twitter and social media. But that's always a poor substitute. One of the simplest examples is from Texas. Despite the fact that there are a number of Spanish language radio stations in Texas, as you would reasonably think there would be given the number of Spanish speakers there, there is no requirement there any more that they regularly do news. This goes back to the other question.

[00:08:50] But there's also no requirement that they have emergency information anymore. So you may have a broadcast group that owns 10 Spanish language stations and is pumping in canned programming from a satellite, if a tornado is coming down the pike, people listening to the radio don't know about it.

[00:09:10] And I could multiply those examples on and on. So we try to address all kinds of things in our book. And we have a very great team of scholars, some of the better scholars in the country are working on the issues and contributing.

[00:11:01] A lot of people said we don't have as much local news as we used to. The local newspaper, if not dying, at least is declining in quality and quantity or scope of coverage. The new information technologies were supposed to fill this gap. But for the most part they're not.

[00:11:40] For the most part the Internet is very good at two things. It connects a world of information on a global or national scale. So you can get any kind of health information that you might need about any disease down to the micro detail.

[00:11:58] It also connects individuals very well. If you're on Facebook and if unfortunately you have an illness, you can connect with many other people. You can find them. They can find you. They can help you. They can support you. So we would say in sociology at a micro level, the Internet works well.

[00:12:16] But it doesn't work very well at all in the middle. And that's because the local communities, or what we would call “meso level arenas of communication” in the middle, they're not big enough to aggregate all the scale that goes into creating a worldwide web or even a Wikipedia. As anybody who has ever tried to start a local version of Wikipedia would find out you don't have the critical mass to do it.

[00:12:48] This is even more true when it gets to subcommunities or minority communities. And I don't mean simply ethnic minorities, but any minority communities that can be quite large in a city like Kansas City or even Madison: tens of thousands of people, hundreds of thousands or more. But often there's not the scale in the middle level to support information about those folks and their community.[3]

[00:13:14] So the Internet economy, the Internet ecology is not a solution to this gap. It simply is not sufficient to bridge that gap.

[00:13:24] I've studied this meso level since 1982, when I first started writing about these issues in my Ph.D. dissertation. I read about how cable and broadband initially and now the Internet will solve all these problems, because we'll have a world of total information abundance simply by virtue of the fact that the technology is there and there's a free market. The short answer is that the free market works very well in many instances and doesn't work well in others. It produces things for profit, which of course makes sense. Much of the information that we're talking about is simply not profitable.[3]

[00:14:05] It's really not profitable to provide local health information necessarily. And there might be ways to turn a small amount of profit on it but not enough to actually support the infrastructure to provide that local information. So the needs of local communities as a whole are not being met by the Internet. And certainly the needs of diverse audiences, whether we think about race, ethnicity, national origin, gender, these are not being met at the local or national level either in many different ways.

[00:14:39] A further problem, which is discussed by James Hamilton of Stanford, who is a contributor to this book,[4] is in the lower incomes, where information is particularly poor. In a way it's not shocking, though it's fairly grotesque, I think: The poorer you are, the worst the information you get. For these people, for example, financial information or local economic and job opportunities are not posted.

[00:15:14] And you are the target of all sorts of informational scams. For example "rent to own" is a kind of informational problem, where people don't see what their alternatives are. Low income Americans are particularly susceptible to this kind of new information gap.

[00:15:36] How could policy address this? I just referenced the criticism we have of what's called market failure. This is not a polemical term: It's an economic term. Public goods, in oversimple terms, are things the public needs, but a producer cannot capture enough of the value to make a profit. Once produced, it becomes free essentially. This is linked to "The Tragedy of the Commons."

[00:16:32] The best way to think about it is that the kind of information that we need in localities is lost to market failures. Local newspapers were always a mixed bag. They certainly were not perfect, and sometimes they were pretty bad. But they did have staffs. The Kansas City Star in its heyday, I don't know the exact numbers but I would be surprised if there weren't 300 reporters covering the Kansas City metro area. Possibly more.

[00:17:05] Now I'd be surprised if there are 150 in that newsroom, and it could be less. And they're also younger, they're less experienced, they're paid less, which means that community coverage, even at the level of the for-profit community media institutions, is shrinking. And it's shrinking for a number of reasons, one of which is consolidation: At the economic level where large corporations and media corporations buy up a number of smaller ones. We may think that's good or bad. Probably most of the folks on this webinar think it's bad.

[00:17:48] Regarding Sinclair, regardless of its economic effects, it has communication effects as well. And those communication effects are very specific, because when corporations buy more media than they can digest, they run a large amount of debt. When they run out that large debt, they cut costs by lowering the quality of community information. They decrease staffs, laying off or buying out the older, more experienced people. People in Kansas City are now saying that if you hire young kids, they will do a lot more for a lot less. And so the degradation of local news is not simply the result of the Internet, which is what we often hear. It's also a result of the explicit corporate consolidation policy and the kind of debt that's piled up during corporate consolidation.

[00:18:49] Is this likely to end anytime soon? No. It's not, unfortunately, because the FCC, the Federal Communications Commission, and I'm talking now about broadcasting, is controlled by the corporations it's regulating. Consider the Sinclair corporation's attempt to buy out and merge with the Tribune Broadcasting company. Ajit Pai is the chair of the FCC. He came from Verizon, where he was basically Verizon's corporate lawyer.

[00:19:37] [Graves] But he was only with Verizon officially for a year and a half or something wasn't he?

[00:19:41] [Friedland] Relatively short time, but he was a Verizon attorney, which of course is legal and legitimate but he was tied to the biggest telecom in the country.

[00:19:59] [Graves] But just to play the devil's advocate, that was like 15 years ago, right?

[00:20:14] [Friedland] Yeah. He is still closely tied to Verizon in a variety of ways. Verizon is one of the major opponents of net neutrality. And Pai is extreme hostile to net neutrality. You're right, Spencer: These things are always difficult to prove. Did he just come by those opinions through studying, listening to the best arguments on the matter? Or did he come by them through his connections with large telecoms? I don't know. You're right. I'm going to back off of that and say that whatever his current associations are, he has been associated with large telecom companies in the past. And his association with Sinclair is much more explicit.[5]

[00:21:20] In any case, the FCC is considering the repeal of net neutrality. Internet companies have been largely excluded from any kind of regulation whatsoever. And as we've seen now, that has huge consequences for our democracy.

[00:22:02] [Graves] I've been heavily involved with net neutrality. We discussed this with many of the people in this room in July, August, and September. I was in the offices of Senators Roberts and Moran and Representative Yoder before and after the Online News Association conference three weeks ago.

[00:22:32] [Friedland] I know you all are familiar with that issue. In any case, local economies, politics and civil society are increasingly dependent upon network communication. At the same time they're not getting the kind of information they need. They also depend heavily on legacy media for the bulk of their local reporting. A plurality of Americans get their information from local television and see them as the most trusted source. So local television is a key conduit for all in the entire local communications ecology. However, as I just said there's actually less local information entering that ecology. There may be more television shows, for example at 5:30 and 6:30 and 10 in the morning, noon 4:30, 5:30, etc. But those television shows have them fewer reporters and do more repackaging.

[00:23:53] [Graves] If I can interject on on that: I identified several years ago books on the social construction of crime that basically said that the incarceration rate in the US was stable at a tenth of a percent of the population from 1925 to 1975 and then shot up by a factor of 5. That increase was by driven by the mainstream media cutting funding and virtually eliminating investigative journalists on broadcast television, replacing them with the police blotter. So the public thought that crime was out of control, when in fact there been no real change in crime. So they changed the laws. And now we've got one of the highest rates of incarceration in the world. Because of the deficiencies in the media.

[00:24:55] [Friedland] That's a social science discussion that I would get into.

[00:24:59] And as you've heard I'm critical of the local media. I would say that there are multiple causes there, and media would be one of them. And it's true that local media grossly over covers local crime. There's no dispute about that whatsoever.

[00:25:17] In any case, some people have said that hyper locals, the local neighborhood type of blogs or news outlets, can bridge these gaps. I've studied these all over the United States. I think they are good. I'm a proponent of them. I actually have run one for 12 years here in Madison, MadisonCommons.org. But I do not believe that they can close these gaps. And they are often used as an attempt to justify the cutting of funding for local reporting by legacy media. That's a false use of them.

[00:26:02] Another specific policy result of this is an increase in conservative bias overall in the media. Obviously there is talk radio, and that's been true ever since the Fairness Doctrine was repealed effectively in 1987.

[00:26:24] My own research on Wisconsin shows that this has had a huge impact on the political climate of Wisconsin, in which there are six hours on average in all the major media markets in Wisconsin of conservative talk radio. About two of that is local Wisconsin based and four of it is national.

[00:26:49] And while there are no definitive links, and I want to stress that, there is at least a strong correlation between the rise of talk radio and the political conservative shift in our state.

[00:27:02] I do want to say one thing to all of you. When Spencer and I talked about this, we were talking what do I think are the most important issues for citizens to take action on. And I would say the single most important issue right now in the United States in terms of communication policy is the proposed Sinclair-Tribune merger. In a nutshell Sinclair is a very conservative television station owner. They're the largest in the United States. They currently have 173 stations, and they're proposing to take over Tribune's stations in this merger. It's really a take over of Tribune, a buy out of Tribune, by Sinclair, including WDAF in Kansas City. This requires a special rule.

[00:28:10] Getting back to Mr. Pai for a moment, Mr. Pai met with Sinclair immediately after the election before he was appointed chair of the FCC. He had a series of meetings with them. And one of the first things that he has done as chair, one of his first major policy initiatives, is to move to change the ownership rules in which no one broadcast corporation or group can own stations that reach more than 39% percent of the American public. And without getting to the technicalities of it, he's brought back a rule that was just repealed, that essentially gave UHF owners, owners of those of ultra high frequency smaller stations, a 50 percent discount on this ownership limit. That was repealed. Now it's being put back into place.[5]

[00:29:14] The only reason for the reinstitution of the UHF rules is to allow Sinclair to rise above the 39 percent threshold. They're already at 38 percent. So with 172 stations they reach 38 percent the American people. They couldn't buy Tribune unless this rule was suspended.

[00:29:34] So this is one of the most blatant cases of this corporation-specific FCC rulemaking that I've seen. And I did write my dissertation in part on broadcast and cable policy. So I've seen a lot of that over the years.

[00:29:52] And the result is going to be that local communities all over the country are going to be subject to a series of must carry essentially conservative inserts, editorials. And not only editorials, which is certainly legal, and legitimate if there was a right to respond I would say, but conservative news articles, news packages. So Sinclair is famous for sending out information from its Baltimore headquarters, pre-produced information. Sometimes these are commercial, because they get paid, sort of a pay-for-play. So a health company or pharmaceutical produces a package on the wonders of whatever drug it happens to be working on. And Sinclair airs it, because they're paid to. And all their 172 stations. This is legal, but most news organizations would consider it unethical. But now they're going to be doing that with political information as well, most likely.

[00:31:10] So I could say more about Sinclair, but all I want to share with you immediately is that this merger is on the verge of going through. There's a wonderful piece on John Oliver show, about which you can find out on the web. If you Google John Oliver and Sinclair, you will find it.[6] And I strongly urge everyone to look at it.

[00:31:37] [Graves] And you think this is a bigger issue and more impactful than the Net Neutrality fight?

[00:31:42] [Friedland] They're both huge. But this one is more immediate, I would say. And I think that this will impact the political climate in the country that will make the FCC almost untouchable for many years. So in that sense I think this might have priority in terms of its urgency. I don't think it's necessarily a bigger policy question, long term. But I think it's the more urgent one. I mean I don't want to choose. It's, truthfully, if you have the time, work on both of them, because they're both critically important. There's no question about that. So it's not an either / or. But this is the one that many fewer people know about right now.

[00:32:32] [Graves] What about other models in the world for better journalism? I know you've written a little bit about the city of Seattle. McChesney I think or somebody has talked about newspapers in Japan, which have not been declining as rapidly as in the U.S. and elsewhere.[7] Comment?

[00:33:05] [Friedland] Yes, sure. This is something I've also studied extensively and I can talk for the rest of our time about it. But in a nutshell, I know Bob and I have a lot of respect for him and other people who've also proposed various comparisons. The problem is that if you look at Germany or you look at Japan or you look at the Netherlands or the Scandinavian countries, they have a small more homogeneous core of highly literate publics concentrated in cities. More simply, they have the audience for high quality national and local journalism. And they also have information subsidies from their respective national governments.

[00:33:51] If I could wave a magic wand and adopt that system, I wouldn't mind seeing a system like that in the United States. However, I don't see those policies ever being adopted the United States. It would cost a minimum of five billion dollars to subsidize the local news production in the United States. And I've seen Bob himself I believe his figure was $35 billion. He proposed a $35 billion voucher program that the Congress could pass and distribute vouchers to every citizen, and every citizen could use them to subsidize the media of their choice.

[00:34:49] I think that's a great idea.

[00:34:51] [Graves] Is that one or two tenths of a percent of GDP?

[00:35:00] [Friedland] Yeah, I think so. I would have to go back and look and calculate it to know that GDP percentage number. I don't have at my fingertips. But it's not a lot of money, but it's a lot of money for Congress. You know again given the political world that we live in, if we think that Congress is likely to pass that, well it's a chicken and egg problem: Maybe a Democratic Congress and a Democratic president might entertain it, although I think there would be huge pressure not to do that from all over the country.

[00:35:41] [Graves] Unless we make sure it's clearly citizen-directed subsidies and not directed by some government bureaucrat, right?

[00:35:51] [Friedland] Yes, I think that is part of the proposal that John Nichols and Bob came came up with that I think is very smart. I don't think that's sufficient to overcome the kind of historic and corporate opposition that we see, at least not in the short run.

[00:36:12] I'm not trying to be skeptical. But I'm trying to be realistic about where we can get now in the mess that we're in. And I could come up with a number of potential solutions, too, regarding public subsidies of various sorts, and I have. But I also try to make sure that I am realistic about their chances of implementation in time to do some good. And there's no simple answer to this. I mean there are there's a lot of small, medium answers right now that actually could be implemented but not that many large ones.

[00:36:55] [Graves] Great. We have a question.

[00:37:20] [Tom Crane] I have a question for you. First I want to thank you for making this presentation. It is very much appreciated. My name's Tom, and I'm with the Friends of Community Media and KKFI . And we've seen the new media elect a demagogue and put him in the White House with the new FCC troglodyte in power. I'm really concerned about what the future thinks Trump is going to do. I'd like to get your take on that. And then secondly, I know Madison has WORT as an alternative radio station, community-based station. We have one here in Kansas City, 100,000 Watts. I think a lot of people are concerned with what is going to happen to the very, very few open media, free media stations that are here in the United States.

[00:38:15] [Friedland] OK. Well if you ask me to predict what Trump is going to do, that would take a long time, too, and I'm sure I'd be wrong by tomorrow. But in all seriousness, his war on the so-called fake news is obviously a very serious challenge to democracy. I think that's fairly straightforward and clear. We have a president who attacks a free press on an almost daily basis.

[00:38:46] And so I am less immediately concerned, although I am concerned just to be clear, about legal restrictions on the ability of free and alternative media to operate than I am on Trump's constant, ongoing de-legitimization of the so-called mainstream press, which I (and many other scholars and other citizens) see as a kind of quasi-authoritarian move. One of the first things that any authoritarian government does is to talk as the Nazis did about the "lying media." So, this is an old trope in authoritarian regimes. And we're seeing it used in a way in the United States that we've never seen before.

[00:39:37] And we didn't get into this other huge issue for democracy, but the Russian hacking -- not technically hacking, I should say, but interference with Facebook and other social media, Twitter, which I know a fair amount about.

[00:40:00] Here in Wisconsin, it was also unprecedented in terms of the degree to which a foreign power was actually actively intervening in our electoral process. And it's pretty obvious that there have been no moves made whatsoever in Congress by Democrats to actively investigate the effects of that interference with our election.

[00:40:34] So we are in a critical period. And I've been involved with alternative media for almost 40 years myself. I did one of the earlier alternative newscasts in KDNA in St. Louis, which some of you might know about. I've known folks at KOPN in Columbia, Missouri. And I've also helped seed what I hoped would be a group of alternative television stations in California. So I've been involved with alternative media for a very long time. To support that movement very deeply, of course I'm a supporter of WORT here.

[00:41:18] I'm not worried in the short run. I think alternative media is very important for all of the obvious reasons that I'm sure everyone in this room knows about and agrees with. I don't think that it's seen as a major challenge to the Republican Party or even further the right wing forces like Bannon right now. I think they see that war as being fought against the mainstream media and over the Internet. So for that reason alone I'm not particularly concerned about the future of WORT and KKFI and KPFA and the Pacifica network in the short run.

[00:42:03] You know if things get worse over some period of years that's a different story.

[00:42:09] [Crane] Well there seems to be a paradox here, too, because we set up this media reform group in response to the consolidation of the media and the removal of the average person from being able to produce news or be in the news. On the other hand it seems like the corporate media are the only ones that are calling Trump on anything right now. And not all of them, of course. But how do you keep your group organized around an ideal, when that ideal seems to be the only thing standing between Trump and total consolidation?

[00:42:48] [Friedland] Well, I'm not trying to beat this hobby horse. But right now, Sinclair is an immediate issue that you guys in Kansas City like in 42 other cities in the United States are facing. Sinclair's consolidation of that local broadcast network is going to be a major step forward towards both corporate consolidation in general and to specifically conservative information control over the local media space.

[00:43:20] Obviously, and I want to be really clear here -- and, Spencer, I appreciate your questioning my comments about Pai earlier, you know the fact that WDAF in Kansas City and 42 other cities are airing conservative editorials. People have four or five other channels they can watch. This is the camel's nose under the tent, I think. And when you've got the largest broadcast group in America doing this, that's a very serious crisis. I would say an emergency. So can we stop this? I don't know. Labor unions around the country are beginning to mobilized around it. I hope that they continue and succeed. But even if we don't stop it, it's important to publicize it, so that people understand what's being done.

[00:44:14] [Graves] I hear that. To change the subject just a little: You've talked about Seattle. What have other cities and nations done?

[00:44:35] [Friedland] Yeah. I'm so glad you got back to Seattle. And I have to say the fight against Sinclair is being led by the unions at KOMO in Seattle.[8]

[00:44:46] [Graves] I distributed to everybody that I can reach your comments in Politico.[9]

[00:45:00] [Friedland] Yeah. OK good. I did a study in Seattle.

[00:45:08] [Graves] Yes, published as a chapter in a book and available from academia.edu.[10]

[00:45:28] [Friedland] So I studied Seattle's information communications ecology about five years ago. And it's one of the more in-depth studies of local communication ecology that's been done. This gets back to the question of conditions and how they fit in a given area or country or community. In Seattle the city government in the 90s or the early 2000s started to fund a wide variety of a few things. This is very important, because it is something that's within local control; it's important to emphasize that. They funded community information centers and community information programs, particularly addressing the lack of computers in local minority communities. It's mentioned that they were out at local libraries and so on. Again that's true in a lot of places, but they also went to 11 and then I think 13 districts. A more local governance system that also had information provisions for each of those districts or regions. And that helped stimulate a lot more local communication activity in the city.

[00:47:00] Secondly, Seattle worked very hard through very enlightened (in my view) information administrators to put their databases online. In a way, this characterized the city, just making more easily available all that mass of police and permitting and zoning and the huge trove of data that a city government collects.

[00:47:26] They worked to make it both accessible and interoperable, so not just local citizens but local entrepreneurs could actually do something with all that data. In some cases it might be a small commercial enterprise. In others it might be a nonprofit enterprise. By having data interoperability and transparency of standards, the city made all that information more accessible in a way we hadn't seen before. And I've just reviewed a paper, a peer review type paper in communication, that shows that on Reddit, a local kind of bulletin board, along with legacy media, that Seattle's government information is used more by readers talking about Seattle than any other news source. So that still continues to be a powerful source of local information.

[00:48:36] And the third element in Seattle's local communications ecology was the existence of a large number of neighborhood online newspapers, essentially. They started as blogs. One is called West Seattle Blog. It covers roughly 100,000. So it sounds small, but it's actually like a modest sized community newspaper. It's read by huge numbers of people in West Seattle. So it's very influential in tying those local local neighborhood issues to other neighborhoods and larger city policy issues. So those kinds of things are really concrete steps.

[00:49:19] Now I will say that some of those things were subsidized by the federal NTIA, National Telecommunications and Information Administration, under Democrat Bill Clinton and even George Bush, and certainly Barack Obama, the NTIA and under the Office of Science and Technology Policy, there are a lot of grants to expand access. Now if they find it, it will disappear -- and they will find it. But even without subsidies there's a lot of things that can be done. Is Kansas City a Google broadband city?

[00:50:04] [Graves] Yes. There are parts of the city that have that and parts that do not. I don't know what percent of the metro area has that. 40 percent or something.[11]

[00:50:18] [Friedland] In Kansas City, that could be a funding source for example for an expansion of community information access from Google itself or by a revenue stream. Anyway, that's speculative.

[00:50:45] So Seattle has managed to create a more robust community information ecology I think than pretty much any other city in the US and one that is publicly supported, partly sustain. But also sustained by citizens. And also sustained by private companies, some of which are enlightened companies like Microsoft and Amazon that did contribute to that community technology base. But also an indirect spin off of that high tech industry is that there's a lot of younger people who work at Microsoft for three to five years, they've got huge numbers of skills, and then they are more tech oriented so they go out and start these blogs, for example.

[00:51:28] So a number have been started by Microsoft and Amazon employees. And of course that's specific to Seattle to some extent. It has a critical mass of bright, technologically enabled young people. In that piece I'm careful to say that you need to be a little bit skeptical of the national comparison. Seattle is a great example, but it's not necessarily one that you could replicate in places like KC or I could replicate here. But elements of it can be. And I think that's the important thing.

[00:52:03] [Graves] That's great. Here in Kansas City a lot of the public libraries have computers and computer rooms and classes. Is that true of the Plaza library and the Kansas City, Missouri, library systems? They offer free computer classes?

[00:52:29] [Woman from audience] They have a person at the Plaza Library on Thursday and Friday evenings to help people with computer problems.

[00:52:41] [Friedland] Yes. The ALA, the American Library Association, has been very active in promoting community uses of communications. They've been another really important nonprofit actor in this area. Librarians have been leaders in this area obviously for a very long time but also in the new tech wave.

[00:53:11] [Graves] Does anyone else have any other questions?

[00:53:22] [Woman] Where can we find out more about this Seattle experience?

[00:53:23] [Graves] The chapter Friedland wrote on “Civic communication in a networked society: Seattle's emergent ecology,” which I mentioned earlier.[12]

[00:53:36] [Friedland] If you have trouble getting to sleep at 10:00 at night, just read it.

[00:53:49] [Graves] I was impressed with it.

[00:53:53] Friedland] There's another article by University of Washington Prof. Matt Powers that compared the city of Toulouse and the city of Seattle very systematically.[13] It's a really fine piece. And that does show you how national conditions and national funding structures really do change how local communication ecologies emerge. That's a good complement to my piece. And when this other piece on Reddit is published, I will send you that too. That's not mine I'm just reviewing it. I don't even know who it is.

[00:54:51] [Graves] I have just a couple other comments. I've written about media and conflict, like the Rwandan genocide was driven by the Hutu leaders getting on the Radio and Television of the Thousand Hills. And there was sort of one percent of truth in what they said. There really were Tutsis in a guerrilla group, that were killing Hutus and destroying property. Not very many but some. But the whole thing got blown entirely out of proportion.

[00:56:01] Another example that I have frequently cited is the city of Bell, California. You're familiar with that?

[00:56:07] [Friedland] I sure do. That's a great example.

[00:56:13] [Graves] Effectively, the local newspaper died, and the city manager said, "Wow. The watchdog is dead. Let's have a party!"

[00:56:21] [Friedland] Absolutely.

[00:56:22] [Graves] And another thing I've been playing with just in the last couple of days. The number of CPAs, Certified Public Accountants, in the US is roughly two tenths of a percent of the population.[14] But they obviously have higher incomes.

[00:56:51] And I would compare accountants with journalists, because of Bill Black's talk about "control frauds." He's got this book on The Best Way to Rob a Bank is to Own One.[15] He also said that Obama's primary fundraiser in 2008 was Jamie Dimon.[16] And my guess is that the primary fundraiser for Senator McCain was probably also a major banker. Because those guys knew they were going to jail otherwise. Did you have a question Mary?

[00:57:34] [Mary, in the audience] Yes, I just had a question for all of us grassroots people, who are out in the streets about war and nuclear weapons and Black Lives Matter and all these social issues that we have.

[00:57:45] I know the media does not want to speak for us. But what can we do to build on our work and try to bring attention to these issues. It is like knocking your head against a wall. But you can't stop, because otherwise they run over you. And I was hoping you might have some kind of glimmer of what we can do to promote our message just a little bit more. It's very hard to get it out there. I work with military families. And I get called all the time from people in Europe. They want to hear what we have to say. But never, never from the US media. They don't want to hear what we have to say if it's about war and peace. Is there anything we can do working out in the street to be more effective?

[00:58:35] [Friedland] People have written about this for a while, including activism in general. Todd Gitlin in The Whole World Is Watching.[17] That's an old but important piece about the Vietnam War. William Gamson at Boston College has written about how local groups can gain more attention through framing. I wish I could say there's some simple answer to that question and there is not.

[00:59:05] I do think that one of the differences now is the use of digital tools. We had a great scholar named Deen Freelon in my department yesterday at UW, the University of Wisconsin. Dean studies "Black Lives Matter" and how it used Twitter to become a national movement and also a lot of other sub-issues involved with that. You know the new media really do make a difference. So I do think that Facebook is a very important and useful organizing tool now. I'll admit I'm of an age where. I don't want to, I don't use it as much. My kids, by which I mean my students and my son, they spend a lot more time on it. And I think that if you want to reach a general public now, you've really got to have a social media strategy, for better or worse. And that's true frankly also for reaching the local media.

[01:00:12] So if you have a Twitter stream for maybe a local war and peace group or a local activist group, your local media stream also alerts, potentially, local media. So one way that Twitter is being used now is that media, reporters and editors and so on, monitor Twitter. And the monitors follow specific folks to see what is going on. And so by establishing that kind of a presence and using it well -- it's not just a matter of having an account but it's a matter of doing it regularly, using the right tone, there's a lot of nuance to it, but using it well -- I think is one of the things that you can do. Again there are no magic bullets here. But I do think that Twitter and Facebook are essential at this point. And especially on expanding outward, depending on your age and your location in the community, expanding outward to others.

[01:01:15] [Graves] Do you have a reference on that? A book or whatever to learn to use Twitter and Facebook and social media and so forth to good advantage?

[01:01:28] [Friedland] I should off the top of my head, but I don't. But I'll try to find one. And again if you nudge me, I'll look for one.

[01:01:39] [Graves] OK: So we have one more question.

[01:01:41] [Jamie Jackson] No: I have a tentative answer to that question. I'm Jamie Jackson. About two years ago now I took a webinar from a group that is trying to teach activist groups how to use Twitter. And you know I'm of a certain age, too, so I'm like not very facile with Twitter. But they had a lot of good suggestions, including planning ahead. If your group is sponsoring an event, you should plan ahead, so that you have talking points that you're tweeting. And the mainstream media will pick up those tweets and you can actually redirect the way that they frame the event. And then the other thing they suggested was hijacking hashtags, so that if there's a hash tag that Trump is using, you can hijack it and turn it into a conversation that is attacking what he said and so forth. I have the name of the people who trained to use Twitter at home. And the main obstacle I've seen is convincing other people in the groups I'm in, who are also of a certain age and are not very facile with Twitter, to buy into that. The group as a whole has to work together.

[01:03:14] [Friedland] If I could just reinforce that, I think on every one of those suggestions is excellent. Every one is consonant with what we know about how new media strategies work in building social movements. They are fine ideas. Message discipline, having a schedule for tweeting them out, everything you said is absolutely correct. And all I would say is, I get it. I use Twitter. I'm not crazy about it, but partly because I feel like I'm busy and I don't need another thing to do. We all feel that way. But if you're going to be a group doing planned civic or political activism, you have to use it.

[01:03:59] Basically it's like when we were young saying I'm not going to use a typewriter or steno machine -- whoever remembers those. It is the medium of activist communication now. And what you said is also really important about the mainstream media: If you have message discipline and you have two or three points, not 100 points, not "corporations are bad" or this or that should happen, but we're making two or three simple points and being consistent with them. That's the single most effective way to get your message out both to the general public and to get to out to that all important secondary public or primary public, which is the media.

[01:04:48] So when you've got those talking points they'll follow you. They will take you more seriously. And they'll be more likely to show up at your demos and public events if you have them.

[01:04:55] [Jackson] Right. And then at least one or two or three people in your group has to be skilled at taking quick videos and posting them, because that captures people's imagination more than just words. This is all good for me, because it's really energizing me using Twitter. The library where I am is very open to suggestions on how they can help people be more skilled in technology. Maybe I will suggest that they should have a Twitter class.

[01:05:32] [Friedland] Yeah. That's a good idea.

[01:05:36] [Graves] There's also an organization here locally that helps people with low incomes get computers.[18]

[01:05:45] [Friedland] For young people now it's all Twitter, and it's all mobile. And that's also for people we might think of as not so young, like Gen Xers in their 40s. So you get below 50 and it's now all mobile.

[01:06:05] [Graves] So we billed this at an hour and a half, and we've got I think 15 minutes left or so. Lew, I'm wondering if you could summarize for us what you think the most important things are that we ought to take away from this. And also give us just a thumbnail sketch of the book that you're working on.

[01:06:30] [Friedland] I think one of the most important take aways was Jamie's comment that when you're organizing in communication or for any civic or public purpose, you need to use these tools. You need to use them more effectively than other folks do. And these are now tools of democracy. So whether we like it or not, you do need to learn to use them and use them effectively, not just sporadically.

[01:07:20] Regarding the Sinclair merger, the more noise that we can create about it, the better off we'll be. Even if it goes through, making the public aware of it, and frankly if it does go through holding the politicians accountable. That's another thing that people in local communities with a Sinclair / Tribune station can do: monitor their content. And ask them for a right to reply. They'll say, "No." But make it a local issue. Make it clear to people locally that they are getting all of this program out of Baltimore. Why is this big media company out of Baltimore parachuting all this conservative opinion into Kansas City? But I want to be really clear.

[01:08:22] Obviously I skew to the left in terms of my overall point of view. But I believe in conservative opinion, and I think it should be out there. And I'm not saying it shouldn't be on television or radio. I'm just saying it has to be some kind of balance. And when you've got one single largest broadcasting company in the United States really devoting itself to conservative opinion, that's a big problem.

[01:08:48] So those are my two things, my two take-aways.

[01:08:52] And also I guess a third one would be to maybe take a look at that Seattle piece. Maybe you can't do all of it. You can't recreate the high tech infrastructure, although I'm sure with Google being there's probably more that could be done. I think I recently read that more younger people are moving back to KC, and it's more of a technology hub than it has been. So I think there are things that you could learn and adapt from that in terms of your local work.

[01:09:23] And finally my book: My book in broad strokes is about the relationship between this entire communication / media system and civil society. And it's looking at the question that I think Tom was getting to toward the beginning of our discussion, which is when you have this level of polarization and division and you have the new media ecology partly compensating for it but also partly further driving us apart, what might be done in a society in which more and more people are spending their communication time and other social time with people like themselves?

[01:10:14] How might we begin to connect across these different boundaries and use these new technology to reweave the social fabric rather than to tear it apart? So that's it in a nutshell.

[01:10:26] [Graves] Great. I've written some about that and about "everyone's favorite news", that I've posted on Wikiversity.

ReferencesEdit

  • Friedland, Lewis A. (2014), "5. Civic communication in a networked society: Seattle's emergent ecology", in Girouard, Jennifer; Diranni, Carmen (eds.), Varieties of Civic Innovation, Vanderbilt U. Pr., pp. 92–126, ISBN 0826519997, retrieved 2017-12-31

NotesEdit

  1. Lloyd and Friedland 2016
  2. Friedland, Lewis; Napoli, Philip; Ognyanova, Katherine; Weil, Carola; Wilson, Ernest J., III (July 16, 2012), Review of the Literature Regarding Critical Information Needs of the American Public (PDF), U.S. Federal Communications Commission, retrieved 2017-09-07
  3. 3.0 3.1 Graves: At least, we are not able to support good local journalism with our current advertising model for funding it. For alternatives, see the discussions of “Media funding and governance” and “Citizen-directed subsidies for journalism” in Winning the War on Terror.
  4. James T. Hamilton and Fiona Morgan, ch. 12. Bridging the Content Gap in Low-Income Communities in Lloyd and Friedland 2106.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Durbin, Duckworth Call For Impartial Investigation Into Potential Quid Pro Quo Between Chairman Ajit Pai, Trump Administration, And Sinclair Broadcasting, Office of Senator Dick Durbin, US Senate, 2017-11-15, retrieved 2017-12-31
  6. e.g., "John Oliver: Sinclair Broadcasting brings 'troubling' rightwing bias to local news", Guardian, 2017-07-03, retrieved 2017-12-31
  7. McChesney, Robert W.; Nichols, John (2010), The Death and Life of American Journalism: The Media Revolution that Will Begin the World Again, Nation Books, p. 252, ISBN 9781568586052
  8. There are three broadcasters in Seattle using the call letters KOMO: KOMO-TV and KOMO (AM), both owned by Sinclair, and KOMO-FM, which “is currently owned by South Sound Broadcasting, but is programmed and managed ... by ... Sinclair”.
  9. Schwartz, Jason (2017-10-19), Union boss threatens campaign against Sinclair: Planned merger with Tribune would cost jobs and coverage in major markets, union leader claims., Politico, retrieved 2017-12-31
  10. Friedland 2014.
  11. 95% of Kansas City, MO, Kansas City, KS, and Olathe, 10% of zip code 66212 in Overland Park according to https://decisiondata.org/coverage/google-fiber-availability/ on 2017-12-31.
  12. Friedland 2014.
  13. Powers, Matthew (2015), "1. The News Crisis Compared: The impact of the journalism crisis on on local news ecosystems in Toulouse (France) and Seattle (US)", in Nielsen, Rasmus Kleis (ed.), Local Journalism: The decline of newspapers and the rise of local media, I.B. Taurus, pp. 31–50, ISBN 978-1784533212, retrieved 2017-12-31
  14. There are roughly 1.3 million accountants in the US, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That's roughly 0.4 percent of the US population and 0.84 percent of the 154.4 million employed individuals, as noted in note 21 in Nuclear weapons and effective defense.
  15. Black, William K. (2005), The best way to rob a bank is to own one: How Corporate Executives and Politicians Looted the S&L Industry, University of Texas Press, ISBN 0-292-72139-0, retrieved 2017-12-31
  16. Black, William K. (2014-10-03), Moyers, Bill (ed.), Too bit to fail: I blame Barack Obama, Eric Holder and Timothy Geithner, said: William Black, veteran bank regulator, The Venus Project, retrieved 2017-12-31
  17. Gitlin, Todd (2003) [1980], The whole world is watching : mass media in the making & unmaking of the new left, U. California press, ISBN 0-520-23932-6
  18. ConnectingForGood.org The Johnson County Library provides a number of classes and events to help people improve tech literacy. To find what's available go to "jocolibrary.org" > Events (upper right) > "All classes and events" > "Event Type": Technology > click "Apply".